Last weekend, EU lawmakers rejected a proposal to ban the use of meat denominations for vegetarian alternatives. Luckily, we won’t have to start calling plant-based burgers ‘veggie discs’, but why on earth was this up for discussion in the first place? This debate represents a petty squabble between MEPs and distracts from the bigger picture: climate change.
Last year, the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development (AGRI) proposed a revamp of EU regulations regarding food labelling. In short, MEPs voted to prohibit the use of so-called ‘meaty’ terms for plant-based products. Gone would be the days of the illustrious veggie burger, Quorn sausage, vegan escalope and seitan steak, soon to be replaced by the wholly unpalatable ‘veggie disc’, ‘Quorn tube’, ‘soya slice’ and ‘seitan slab’. Sounds appetising, right?
Fortunately, last weekend saw the European Parliament vote against these amendments, which has mitigated outrage from environmentalist protestors who claimed the proposals contract worldwide sustainability efforts. Whilst I am glad that this trivial debate has been put to rest, I question the priorities of the European Union, who appears to be skirting around the very real climate crisis.
An unnecessary rebrand
The debate surrounding these food labels supposedly stemmed from meat manufacturers, as a reaction to the rise of plant-based alternatives. Some claim that the potential rebrand would allow vegetarian labels to make their own more original mark. However, groups such as Copa Cogeca, the association of European farmers and agri-cooperatives, have accused such labels of culturally hijacking livestock and meat industries and deliberately misleading consumers.
The rising panic among the meat industry is understandable: climate activists such as David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg have galvanised a global shift toward a greener lifestyle, inevitably resulting in a move away from meat. However, to accuse vegetarian brands of ‘cultural hijacking’ and ‘misleading consumers’ is absurd. Is the concept of a veggie burger really that befuddling? Isn’t the term ‘veggie’ enough to qualify a product as meat-free?
These allegations seem to be a mere disguise for the collective exasperation resulting from falling demand for meat. This attack on vegetarian brands is not only a petty squabble between EU constituents but also a distraction from the very real need to implement measures to protect the environment. I mean, wouldn’t you be slightly deterred at the prospect of a veggie ‘tube’ or ‘disc’, despite their eco-friendly incentives?
I am not denying that the meat industry is facing legitimate concerns in the current climate. In the past year alone, meat consumption per capita has dropped by 3%, as consumers are becoming more aware of the health and environmental implications of their diet. However, I cannot understand how drawing attention to the trivial details, such as labelling a sausage, is going to do anything to resolve these issues. Call it a sausage or not, vegetarianism is taking over: perhaps it is time for meat manufacturers to face up to this fact, instead of pointing an indignant finger.
Beefing the burger
Because I am a) a vegetarian and b) a tad sanctimonious, I decided to delve into the world of the Oxford English Dictionary to figure out why the term ‘burger’ has such a strong affiliation to European meat culture. Interestingly, the OED defines a burger as a ‘terminal element, usually denoting a roll, sandwich, etc., containing the foodstuff specified in the first element’. So, a beef burger contains beef, a chicken burger contains chicken, and a veggie burger contains… yep, you guessed it, vegetables. In summary, there is actually nothing intrinsic to the term ‘burger’ that suggests it contains meat.
But what does this mean for the food labelling debate?
Essentially, the very basis of the meat advocates’ argument is, well, wrong. Whilst French MEP Éric Andrieu maintains that referring to vegetarian patties as ‘burgers’ is outright deception, a quick visit to our trusty dictionary reveals that his argument falls flat. You simply cannot copyright something that isn’t owned in the first place.
Pot calling the kettle black
Vegetarians and vegans are typically accused of ostracising meat-eaters for their diet choices, but following the AGRI’s proposals to change EU regulation, the opposite seems to be happening. Such amendments represent an active push to separate meat-eaters from their vegetarian compeers, which not only promotes a non-supportive diet culture but again discourages a move towards a sustainable way of living. Yes, the odd vegan might turn up their nose at your bacon sarnie, but the rebranding of plant-based alternatives is far more scornful and would only work to further alienate diet cultures from one another.
A waste of time
There is no time like the present. And at present, we are not only facing the implications of Brexit and COVID-19 but the desperately pressing matter of climate change. The mere name of a veggie burger should – and must – fall right to the bottom of the EU priorities list. How many times do the scientists have to advise us that cutting out meat is a sure-fire way to reduce our carbon footprint? Why is the EU, a unit with immense positional influence, not lobbying this? It is incredibly frustrating to see MEPs show such flippancy to time-sensitive matters like the Paris Climate Accord, whilst simultaneously getting their knickers in a twist over what to label their Linda McCartney lunch.
Hasn’t the EU got anything better to do?
And if they do insist on discussing this matter any further, they could at least come up with some more inspired foodie names. Perhaps we’ll see the rise of the saus-ish. Or maybe we can just call it what it is – a sausage – and move on with our lives.